Since I began my travels over two years ago, swimming with whale sharks never even entered my mind. My bucket list was extensive and ever-growing, but interacting with these giants just didn’t seem like my cup of tea.
Whale sharks are HUGE, and though they are the gentle giants of the sea, their presence can be menacing as they glide silently underneath your flippers.
The more I travelled, the more confident I became in the water. I’ve snorkelled in countless destinations now, and also attained my Open Water certificate in diving. This isn’t a necessity for swimming with whale sharks, but it is imperative you are a strong swimmer and comfortable in OPEN water.
Whale Sharks in Oslob, the Philippines
While completing my diving course in Koh Tao, Thailand, on our final day, there was excited chattering of a whale shark spotting in the area. I began to entertain the idea of swimming with these giants, and by the time I had the water I was positively buzzing with excitement at the thought of spotting one! Unfortunately it was not meant to be that afternoon in Koh Tao.
Once again, I had the opportunity to swim with whale sharks while in the Philippines. I could not wait to get to Oslob and jump in with the massive sea creatures. Fortunately, a little bit of research before booking a ticket to Oslob and I realised this is not the place to experience interacting with whale sharks.
Numerous accounts of animal exploitation can be found online, including overcrowding of tourists, swimmers touching and holding onto the whale sharks, and most determinately, fishermen feeding the whale sharks, to keep them in the area and stopping their natural migration habits.
This was a hard decision, but I’m so glad we left Oslob and waited until the Maldives for out experience swimming with whale sharks.
Whale Sharks and the Maldives
When people think of the Maldives, they generally picture lazing on a sun-chair, cocktail in hand, in a state of utter relaxation; I know I did! The last thing I envisioned when thinking of the Maldives, was jam-packed days of snorkelling, diving and swimming with giant whale sharks!
But that is exactly what our holiday consisted of in the Maldives! Seeing whale sharks was going to be the highlight of my trip, so I decided to save it until my birthday.
A tiny island in the southern Ari Atoll, Dhigurah, is famous for its resident whale sharks year-round. They are spotted every month of the year in around the island, with our guide telling that in peak-time (August – November) the whale sharks are known to swim right into the bay of Dhigurah. There are accounts of people snorkelling around the island and bumping straight into whale sharks also!
The Whale Shark Safari
I had no idea what to expect with our whale shark safari. Usually when we went in search certain marine life like turtles or nurse sharks, we jumped into the general area where they are known to hang out, swim around and hope for the best.
With the whale sharks it was a completely different story. Our party for the day was a relatively small one, just us, a family of four, and two other couples plus crew. As we sailed away from the bay, the crew informed us to get into our swimwear, and have our snorkels and fins at the ready.
We all lazed about on the top deck, sunning ourselves and getting to know each other, when suddenly…”WHALE SHARK, WHALE SHARK”! One of the guests spotted a whale shark down below the surface. Sure enough, we looked over to see it huge dark shape gliding beneath the boat.
It was a scramble for everyone to get down below deck and shove on our flippers. It was every man for himself as we all heaved overboard and in search of the ever-moving whale shark.
Spotting the Whale Shark
I splashed into the open water first, mask askew and fins flapping. The bubbles dispersed and I gulped a mouthful of seawater in pure shock at what was before me!
Through the clearing fizz, the whale shark, mount open and tiny eyes shining, was coming straight for me! I knew they were big, but the sheer size of this creature genuinely took me by shock and for a moment I was terrified!
I quickly reminded myself these were gentle giants, known for their docile nature around humans. This massive creature took no notice of me or my fellow swimmers bombing into the ocean around him. Soon I noticed, I was not alone with the whale shark, not only had my party joined me, but a few other snorkelers from other boats had appeared too.
I later learned that it is common decency between all boats to radio each other when one spots a whale shark. Donis and speedboats were soon appearing from every direction over the horizon.
I couldn’t help but feel my heart drop a little at the thought of sharing this experience with hordes of others. I soon realised, however, I wouldn’t be sharing the whale sharks with others for too long.
It was quite apparent that many who jumped off the boat, were not strong swimmers, most donning lifejackets and fiddling with underwater cameras. The big fish moves fast and coupled with a strong current, it was difficult to keep up. One swish of the giant tail was equivalent to countless kicks of my flippers. A strong swimmer and a relatively high level of fitness saw me as one of the few left swimming along with the whale shark.
If I could give one piece of advice to those considering a whale shake safari: make sure you are a good swimmer!!! The tide is strong, currents rough and waves are continuously rolling in over your head. The snorkel expedition is not in a shallow nook of coral, the whale sharks belong in deep, open water, and this is where you will be swimming!
Throughout the morning, we hopped in and out of the water as the whale sharks appeared and disappeared. The doni followed them along and when the time was right, we jumped in for another go at swimming. Some of the guests on our doni, opted out of some of the swims towards the end; all that kicking against the current can be tiring stuff! Altogether, we spotted the whale sharks four or five times. Sometimes the animal would quickly disappear into the deep dark waters below, and other times the whale shark would skim the top of the water, making for some great pictures!
Rules and Guidelines
There are rules to follow when interacting with the whale sharks. However, as we all know, it can be hard to control a group of excited tourists when the opportunity of a good selfie arises! It is up to us as informed travellers to respect the whale sharks and follow the guidelines set in place.
While on our doni, our guide for the day stressed to us how important it is for swimmers to remain at least four metres at all times from the whale shark. Not only for the animal’s well-being, but for the snorkelers’ protection too; one bang off that whooshing tail-fin and your swim is done for the day!
Like all other, snorkel trips you may have partaken in, a no touch or take policy is adhered to. Do not under any circumstances touch the whale shark or any other marine life in the area, and no shells, corals or starfish are to be pocketed!
And last, but by no means least, it is imperative you listen to your guide and follow his instruction. There will be a few guides in the area, all looking out for their own swimmers, so make sure you keep an eye on yours and do not lose sight of him.
The well-being of the whale shark is of the utmost importance. However tour groups obviously want their guests to have an enjoyable experience and get the most out of their whale shark encounter.
These two must be balanced, and as a participant in this once in a lifetime opportunity, it is your responsibility to do everything possible to make this happen. Be mindful of the magnificent animals around you, and do not risk the whale sharks’ safety in exchange for that most-coveted selfie.